Happy 133rd Birthday, Harry Houdini!

Master illusionist Harry Houdini was born Erik Weisz 133 years ago today in Budapest. Here are 10 HH Did-You-Knows:

  • Houdini’s father, Rabbi Mayer Sámuel Weisz, was a rabbi who moved the family to the United States when Houdini was four years old. Erik Weisz was born in Budapest to a Jewish family. They lived in Appleton, Wisconsin, where Rabbi Weisz led the Zion Reform Jewish Congregation. In 1887, Rabbi Weisz parted ways with Zion and he and young Erich moved to NYC (the rest of the family would follow after they were settled).
  • Houdini began his career as magician in 1891, working with a strongman in appearances in tent shows, slideshows and museums (which then tended to exhibit show business acts and cultural oddities—think Barnum’s museums of that era). In his early years on stage, Houdini focused on card tricks, and it was slow going for him.
  • After reading French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin‘s autobiography in 1890, Wiesz was inspired to change his name to Harry Houdini (it’s said he was under the mistaken impression that an I at the end of a word meant “like”).
  • In the early years, Houdini teamed with his brother Theodore (who went by “Dash”), but when he met and married Wilhelmina Beatrice “Bess” Rahner, herself a performer, he changed partners.
  • In 1899, Houdini met vaudeville impressario Martin Beck in in St. Paul, Minnesota, where Beck suggested Houdini focus on being an escape artist. Beck booked Houdini on the Orpheum circuit and his career took off.
  • In 1906, Houdini launched his own publication, the Conjurers’ Monthly Magazine. It was in large part an organ for Houdini’s airing of his personal opinions and grievances and was exceedingly short-lived (he even turned on his former idol, Robert-Houdin, eventually even writing a book attacking his predecessor). His critiques weren’t widely accepted.
  • Houdini’s escape skills became so refined and his renown came so great that Houdini encouraged members of the public to devise new escapes for him to undertake. In 1913, he created the Chinese Water Torture Cell, which saw him lowered upside-down in a locked glass-and-steel cabinet filled with water.
  • Houdini (1953), a biopic very loosely based on Houdini’s life, depicted him dying when the Torture Cell trick went awry but that didn’t happen (and also, Houdini didn’t remotely resemble Tony Curtis—we’re just sayin’). In fact, Houdini would perform the trick successfully until his death from peritonitis brought on by a ruptured appendix in 1926. It’s thought by some that the appendix rupture happened because a university student, who claimed Houdini had bragged of being able to withstand blows to his abdomen with no ill effects, had caught Houdini off-guard with several punches to the gut while he was reclining on a couch. Whether these punches, which eyewitnesses said caused noticeable Houdini discomfort, led to the appendix rupture is unclear.
  • Houdini appeared in a number of motion pictures. The earliest ones were self-produced to documented his feats of escape as an accompaniment to his live act, but he went on to star in a handful of commercial pictures.

Happy birthday, Harry Houdini, wherever you may be!

Harry Houdini